On Re-reading

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4 June 2011

I had just been thinking about re-reading – its value – when I came across this article at Open (via Bookforum’s Paper Trail).  The article claims that most of us re-read as a “guilty pleasure” – for “the comfort of the same old story and the same old characters and the same old ending…”  Hmm.  The writer continues:

To pick up a yellowed, tattered copy of a Turgenev or a Tagore is almost a guilty pleasure today, one that has to be explained away by the need to rediscover old texts from new perspectives. But why pretend? I reread, not in search of new meanings in familiar words and sentences, but precisely to taste the old meaning all over again. In exactly the same way, every single time.

Well.  I’d been thinking about this because I was running along the Hudson River path and (distracting myself from knee pain by) listening to “Selected Shorts”.  The story was Edgar Allan Poe‘s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” which most of us have read at least twice by the time we graduate college.  I was just about to fast forward through it (the next story was Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool”), but then I thought, Well, why not listen.  The reader was the eminent Terrence Mann.

I was very glad that I decided to listen.  The story really did strike me in new ways – as not only a traditional narrative of human psychology and guilt, but also a compelling consideration of the fluidity of wisdom, madness, and “nervousness” – a perspective that always intrigues me, as it subverts all conventional notions of morality and normality.  It’s not exactly that I saw something new, but that I apprehended the layers somehow more clearly, and the implications of the ideas sunk in more deeply.  What’s “crazy,” and who decides? (Regarding the timelessness of these ideas, there is a new book by Jon Ronson, The Psychopath Test, that has been getting a lot of attention.)

Perhaps this is also an argument for “reading” literature in different formats – print, audio, etc.  But the other thing I considered (as I hauled myself up an endless set of steps in Riverside Park) was how well Mann – whose reading was superb – had simply followed the rhythms inherent in the text itself. Consider the frenetic short sentence pacing in this passage:

… for many minutes the heart beat on with a muffled sound. This, however, did not vex me; it would not be heard through the wall. At length it ceased. The old man was dead. I removed the bed and examined the corpse. Yes, he was stone, stone dead. I placed my hand upon the heart and held it there many minutes. There was no pulsation. He was stone dead. His eye would trouble me no more.

And the smoother, longer, compound sentences in this passage, which serves as a kind of stabilizing fermata, following the above:

If still you think me mad, you will think so no longer when I describe the wise precautions I took for the concealment of the body. The night waned, and I worked hastily, but in silence.

The acceleration and choppiness in this passage, which concludes this section:

I took up three planks from the flooring of the chamber, and deposited all between the scantlings. I then replaced the boards so cleverly so cunningly, that no human eye — not even his — could have detected anything wrong. There was nothing to wash out — no stain of any kind — no blood-spot whatever. I had been too wary for that.

I love the sounds, rhythms and absence of comma in “so cleverly so cunningly,” which feels like slipping over a waterfall.

The story in fact grabbed me anew from its first line – True!  Nervous — very, very nervous I had been and am!  But why will you say that I am mad?  I actually laughed out loud listening to it – my very own mad nervousness escaping me.

So I think that this claim that we’re all “pretending” to see or experience something new when we re-read is rather thin.  You’d have to be completely static in mind and soul for “exactly the same way, every single time,” which strikes me as virtually impossible.

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